After numerous teases, a free tie-in game and what feels like a very long wait, we finally got an in-depth look at Life is Strange 2 last night at a pre-Gamescom showcase. Two early sequences from the game were shown, one of which will be playable on the show floor, giving us our first (proper) look at Life is Strange 2's main characters and teasing what the long road has in store for them. We're not in Arcadia Bay anymore, everything looks very different, and really, that's a very good thing indeed.
Life is Strange 2 focuses on the journey of two brothers, Sean and Daniel Diaz, who are on a dangerous road trip after a series of tragic events near the beginning of the game force them to go on the run from police under threat of separation and arrest. It's set three years after the events of Life is Strange 1 - so, 2016 - and begins a few nights before Halloween. Sean is the older brother and the playable character, a talented 16 year old would-be artist who hates parties, has a crush on a girl named Jenn much to the amusement of his best friend Layla, and likes chilling in his room while listening to The Streets. His younger brother Daniel is 9, loves Halloween, zombies and chocolate bars, and has a mini-crush on Layla, much to the amusement of Sean. They seem to have a fairly quiet life with their father in suburban Seattle until things unravel shockingly fast and they're forced to go on the run with nothing but the clothes on their back, stolen party supplies, and a small helping of pocket money.
The game charts the brothers and their journey along the west coast of America from Seattle to their father's former home, Puerto Lobos in Mexico. The road trip setting is quite a departure from the fixed location of Arcadia Bay in the first season, but developer Dontnod says it means the pair can meet a lot of colourful characters along the way. Were the studio worried about not having a single main location or town to anchor players and build a sense of time and place?
"It was a big change and a challenge," co-director Michel Koch told us. "It's a road movie structure and you're always on the move. You'll see over the course of the season, but you'll have to leave things behind to move forward. The anchor of the game is really Sean and Daniel - they are the main characters - but like in road trip movies when you meet a lot of different people, you give them something, they give you something, and they leave part of themselves [with you] when you move on." What road trip movies were the team inspired by? Stand By Me? "Stand by Me is a good one, but I was going to say Into The Wild," Koch says. "In books, something like Of Mice and Men. But of course we always do a lot of research - we did a lot of travelling along the West coast and tried to meet a lot of people on the fringe parts of society to try and see how it is, to try and not be cliche." Sean and Daniel's status as outcasts is also important, and Dontnod says that players will discover "how hard it is to live as outcasts." No doubt this uncertainty will play into how the pair interact with strangers, and how some people they meet may want to help them, and others... not so much.
You can tell the development of Life is Strange 2 was quite a challenge for the team (both the original co-directors return in the same role as Season 1, as does its lead writer and music composer) and that they feel the weight of fan anticipation this time around. There is a LOT of expectation there that simply didn't exist as season one was starting out. "We didn't want to disappoint the player," Michel Koch told us, "but at the same time wanted to do something different." And they have. In fact, it often seems like Dontnod goes out of its way to set Life is Strange 2 as far apart from its predecessor as it can. "We wanted to push the concept we created for the first season to an ambitious new project," Michel Koch told us, "We knew the story of Max and Chloe was told, and those two endings, while open-ended - we wanted players to imagine what happened next on their own and for this to be over for us as storytellers. So, what is a Life is Strange game? It's having a set of relatable characters, facing real-life issues in a world which is as close as possible to the real world just with a twist of some supernatural elements that we can use to emphasise some story aspects, like with the rewind it was to emphasise Max's inability to make decisions and inability to go forward with her life.
"We also knew we didn't want to do a small town setting with a fixed set of characters again, because we might end up going into some similar themes and issues as the first game. It might have been a comfort zone for us and for players. Instead, we wanted to think about something which would allow us to tackle a completely different subject matter and themes. So we thought about the idea of two brothers alone on the road who just need to take care of each other and discovering society from a different angle, as they are outcasts now."
Koch continued, "Really early we thought, we had the friendship/relationship with Max and Chloe, but what if you had to look after another character. The main theme of the game is education. Sean is young, sixteen, but he grows up too fast because of what happens - he now has to take care of his brother. Daniel is nine, not really a child anymore but definitely not a teenager, somewhere in between, where you are getting a lot from around you but starting to develop your own personality. It was the perfect age for us to really have you reflect on your decisions, to have this little kid always with you - always looking at you - taking examples from you. And, over the course of the game, starting to mimic the things you do, or develop his own personality based off of what you told him." That's a lot of pressure, and added to this is the fact that Daniel, not Sean, is seemingly the one with supernatural abilities.
But Max's gift was the ability to rewind time - Daniel's seems to be the power of telekinesis - to move objects and people through the air with care (as seen at the end of Captain Spirit) or with great force. "I don't want to say a lot because you'll have to discover over the course of the episode," Koch tells us when we ask him about the nature of Daniel's powers. "What's important to us is that powers are definitely a part of the LIS universe, but definitely not the focus. The focus is the characters, their story, and the idea of supernatural powers is something we use to emphasise the issues and the problems that are already there. The 'Rewind' appeared for Max when she needed it most, when going through stress or when something triggered it. In Life is Strange 2 there is the same idea, that supernatural elements bring another layer to the story we want to tell." What's also interesting about Daniel in particular is, whether because of actually using the power or because of the physical and mental shock of its very first manifestation, he seemingly has very little recollection of the horrific events that set the game in motion. Sean seems eager to keep him in the dark about it for the time being too, something that he's no doubt doing to protect his little brother but that will more than likely only serve to draw a wedge between them in the long run.
In continuation of Life is Strange's intermingling between real world issues and the hint of the supernatural, the use of animal symbolism in relation to its main characters - butterflies, squirrels, deer, ravens - Sean and Daniel's animal guide appears to be the wolf. Not only do the boys howl at the moon in the reveal trailer and Sean's hoodie features a prominent wolf motif, the game features a pair of running wolves as an on-screen consequence marker for when something Sean says or does has a long-term impact on Daniel. Additionally, the place that the boys are trying to get to in Mexico where their father Esteban mentions he's from is Puerto Lobos - Lobo is Spanish for wolf. We asked Michel Koch about it, but he didn't want to give anything away "I don't want to say too much," he said. "You've seen the icon of the wolf which replaces the butterfly, you've seen the trailer with the boys howling at the moon. We like to have spirit animals, metaphors, which you can bring to characters which also brings something visual for players."
One thing that Dontnod were keen to talk about was that Life is Strange 2's main theme is education. Sean is responsible for Daniel now, and everything he does, says and teaches his little brother will leave a lasting impression. And how much players decide to pass on, and indeed exactly what they pass on, will not only depend on what they do as Sean during key moments, but also how much they explore the world around them. Things in the world that you can specifically interact with alongside Daniel will be highlighted in blue as you wander around. While walking through the forest, we saw opportunities to show and explain different things to Daniel, knowledge that could feasibly save his life at a later date. Which wild berries were edible, how to spot a trail blaze, how to check maps, what animals to watch out for, and more besides.
Dontnod says one of the biggest challenges it faced for Life is Strange 2 was designing the AI for Daniel to make him "believable, sensible, and sometimes super-cute." He'll move around the player as you explore, looking at things for himself "in the way a young boy would." There was an element of this in Life is Strange 1 where Chloe would comment on what she and Max were doing as you walked around, but according to Koch this was "fairly basic. Daniel will move around you, he'll talk about things you do, about something you're looking at. We've done the best we can to make it feel organic. The player needs space, and to identify with Sean as much as possible."
Helping to give Sean his own unique voice, the composer for the original series, Jonathan Morali, returns to provide music for season two. It'll be the same mix of original scores and licensed tracks, and already there's a slight but noticeable shift in the tone of music choices to reflect our new protagonists. The first song of the game, Lisztomania by Phoenix, plays as Sean gets off the bus, excited that it's Friday and giddy at the prospect of heading to a party where his crush will be. Later on, he hums along to The Streets in his room. Folksy guitars still provide a dreamy backdrop to the series, of course, but there's an electronic edginess creeping in here that's reflective of Sean's own personal style, just as alt and indie rock bands like Sparklehorse, Mogwai and Bright Eyes were representative of Max's hipster credentials.
Speaking of Max, some fans of the original series have expressed a little disappointment that this season won't continue the trend of young female protagonists, but Dontnod insist that the core spirit of Life is Strange is a universal experience. It's possible that just as Life is Strange 1 tackled a lot of themes that were particularly relatable (though not unique to) young women - slut-shaming, revenge porn, teen pregnancy, sexual violence - Life is Strange 2 might tackle problems faced by young men - toxic masculinity, brotherhood and finding out what kind of man you want to become.
"I think they're different to the usual 'white dudes' you find in video games," Koch says of the brothers. "Not that those characters are bad, we definitely could have a good Life is Strange game with a 'white dude.' With Sean and Daniel, their father, where they come from, we have a lot of interesting mechanics and dynamics, some new social themes we can bring in and show to players to bring to light." Given the current political climate in America and the fact that the journey these boys undertake includes both the threat of incarceration and the separation of families, it's certainly possible that Life is Strange 2 will have interesting things to say about race and immigration. This is especially likely as one of the game's earliest scenes involves Sean and Daniel's Mexican father, Esteban, in an unbelievably tense altercation with a young white cop. The original series was also praised for allowing players to depict Max and Chloe's relationship as romantic, so many fans will be hoping for this follow-up to touch upon LGBT+ issues. Both Sean and Daniel express a romantic interest in girls in the very first scene of the game, but is there still room to explore gay themes in season two? "We were extremely happy with the reception from the LGBT community for the first game, in the ending, in the way you were working your relationship with Chloe,: Koch told us. "We really hope with Sean and Daniel, we hope everybody - most of the players - will really love the themes we are dealing with and you'll have to see what happens over the course of the season... We are here to talk about a lot of different characters. We want to be inclusive and to work in the best way possible to deal with real subjects in a sensible way."
Of course, it's not like Life is Strange 1's story of young women or Life is Strange 2's story about young men is in any way exclusionary - it's all just about finding different points of view. "It's a question of the story we're writing - the best characters for us," Koch says. "Definitely for us, the mechanics of brotherhood were interesting. Also, Life is Strange is a series which should be quite representative and talk to lots of players - and where Max and Chloe were the best characters for the first season, we wanted to see what new perspectives we could bring and to maybe change the storytelling up for Season 2." It's interesting though, I'm not sure whether it's Max's naturally reserved demeanor or the fact that we simply know her better, but Sean seems a much more complex and ambiguous character to control, given that his temper seems to range from choices of placatory and indulgent to outright confrontational. He seems like a more moldable character for players to control given that he's always self-editing his behaviour anyway, depending on the influence he wants to have over his younger brother. Is this unknown quantity a conscious cultivation by Dontnod, given that what exactly Sean teaches Daniel is a major through-line of the game? "There needs to be space for a player's personality to be reflected in the character," Koch said. "We did it for Max, we tried to do it for Sean while still trying to make him have this dynamic of a big brother. Our writer, Jean-Luc, he had a brother and they were always fighting! We wanted Sean to have a somewhat difficult relationship at the start of the game where - he wasn't bullying, but there's this tension, this fighting between brothers. But, it has to be the right balance so it doesn't feel obnoxious or the player doesn't like Sean."
Just like Max expressed herself through photography and Chloe with her graffiti, it seems like Sean is a bit of an artist. There are a couple of hints to this dotted around throughout the demo we saw, including pieces of signed art in his room and the fact that he doodles a rather unflattering portrait of his friend Layla while on a Skype call with her. It seems likely that this will come up as a side activity in the final game, where players seek out scenes to sketch similar to how Max and Chloe applied their talents and showed diligent players more of their own unique perspective on the world. It'll be interesting to see whether this stretches to Sean's diary being featured in the game's menu screen too. Another important connection between Sean and Daniel and Max and Chloe? They're nerds. Our demo saw them reference Minecraft and Lord of the Rings, among other things.
One thing that Sean can do that Max couldn't, however, is multitask. You're no longer locked into a mini-cutscene while you talk to people, for example, but can wander around looking at and reading different points of interest while having a full-on conversation and choosing from multiple responses. According to Dontnod, this creates a more immersive and natural experience, but more than that, it means completionists won't be quite so harshly punished for time because they decide to pursue every avenue of conversation and read every single note. It helps this time around too that since the game is built using the Unreal 4 engine (as opposed to Unreal 3 for the first series), there's a marked improvement in both lip syncing and the overall facial animations, more on par with the quality players will have seen in the more recent prequel series Life is Strange: Before the Storm.
There will no doubt be an adjustment period as players get used to the idea of the Life is Strange universe without Max and Chloe, but everything Dontnod has shown of Life is Strange 2 so far is a bold statement of intent as the new season allows different voices, themes and storylines to come to the fore. All of the classic Life is Strange elements are here - a carefully curated music playlist, beautiful art direction, interesting relationships, difficult decisions and just a hint of the supernatural - and honestly after seeing the gut-punch that Dontnod has in store for players within the first twenty minutes or so, we're confident that season two won't be shying away from difficult themes and complex moral dilemmas. We'll be going hands-on with the demo we saw last night later in the week at Gamescom and will provide more detailed impressions then, but for now we're hella excited to see what Life is Strange 2 Episode 1 will bring to the open road come September.